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Casey: Tax hikes should be part of WV’s budget talks

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Gov.-elect Jim Justice’s newly announced chief of staff said that, after a slow start, the transition is in full gear.

“I know the transition process is not fits and starts,” Nick Casey said Wednesday. “I can hear it humming.”

Casey, a longtime Charleston lawyer and lobbyist and former chairman of the state Democratic Party, said it is clear the key issues for the 2017 legislative session will be growing the economy and addressing what is now projected as a more than $400 million shortfall in the 2017-18 state budget.

Speaking for himself, Casey said he believes all revenue options, including short-term tax increases, will have to be part of the budget discussion.

“I think revenue sources, including taxes, have to be put on the table to at least be talked about,” he said.

He cited the gas tax, which is set to drop for the third straight year, on Jan. 1, under a calculation of a portion of the tax that is based on wholesale gas prices for the previous year. That cut is projected to save a typical driver about $28 a year but cost the state Road Fund about $12.5 million in revenue.

“You’re saving a few bucks a year, but spending $300 to get a front-end alignment,” Casey said, illustrating the false savings of that tax cut.

Restoring the tax rate to where it was three years ago would provide more than $36 million in revenue for the Road Fund, Casey said, adding, “I guess you could say that’s a tax increase.”

Another example he cited is tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike, which bring in $85 million a year in revenue, paid predominately by out-of-state travelers but unpopular with many residents of counties served by the Turnpike.

“Tolls on the Turnpike come off in a couple of years,” Casey said of current law, which will repeal the tolls when 30-year bonds are paid off in 2019. “That’s certainly important to many people but, on the other side, you can’t bond without tolls.”

Casey said issuing bonds for infrastructure projects could be one option to help close the budget deficit and jump-start the economy.

“Hopefully, there’s some bonding opportunities out there,” he said.

As for the transition, Casey said the pace will pick up considerably.

Currently, the transition team is creating a grid, of sorts, matching possible candidates for Cabinet secretary and department head positions.

Casey said the Justice administration likely will be a combination of existing and new appointees.

Casey said he’s been surprised that members of the Tomblin administration, whom he’d assumed would have no interest in staying in state government, have expressed interest in serving in the Justice administration, something he credits to the governor-elect.

“Justice has just such an intriguing, interesting attitude about things,” he said.

Casey said the transition has been different, in part, because Justice has not been extensively involved in politics, and had no preconceived notions of potential appointees.

“He’s a business guy. He’s not a political guy at all,” said Casey, who said Justice is looking for the most-qualified candidates for each appointment, based on “ability, expertise and enthusiasm.”

Casey said Justice also is very deliberative, noting that he was effectively interviewed three times by Justice before being offered the appointment.

“We have a very deliberative governor-elect,” Casey said. “I’m impressed.”

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